Monday, September 09, 2013

President Obama May Be About To Achieve His Syria/Chemical Weapons Objectives

Congress is considering a resolution that would authorize the President to use force against Syria for a limited period of time and restrict the force that could be used by excluding ground troops. Recent developments suggest that the resolution will soon be amended. Secretary Kerry stated that one way for the Assad regime to avoid military strikes was to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile. Apparently Kerry has suggested this in the past to his Russian counterpart, Lavrov, but made little progress in getting Russian agreement, something that is critical to getting Syria to act. Now the Russians are jumping on the idea and Lavrov offered a proposal for Syria's chemical weapons to be turned over to an international body. The Assad regime has given its initial support to the Russian initiative.

It remains to be seen whether either the Russians or Syria are serious about this but the concept is a useful one that could be included in the resolution for the use of military force. For that reason look for the resolution currently under consideration to be be amended to include some form of trigger that would allow Syria to avoid military action by relinquishing its chemical weapons stockpile to international control. How that is worded and what form the trigger will take is yet to be seen. But there is a reasonable possibility that the resolution will take this form in the coming days.

From the beginning of the Syria conflict President Obama has opposed United States intervention. Initially he opposed giving even non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels and was only committed to aiding the countries that were taking in Syrian refugees. As the pressure from war hawks mounted and as the conflict became more intense he decided to start giving non-lethal aid to the rebels. Then, after the initial reports of possible gas attacks,but which were convincing not sourced well enough to justify a firm response, the President warned Assad against further use and agreed to provide lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. Finally, after the August 21st chemical weapons attacks in Damascus, attacks which the intelligence community gave its highest rating of probability as having been conducted by the Syrian government, the President decided that the only way to deter further use was to launch a limited military strike.

But the goal of the military strike has always been clear - to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, to degrade their ability to use such weapons and to reinforce the international norm against the use of such weapons. While are the goals it was also recognized that a side affect of the military attacks would be to degrade Syria's overall military capabilities and by extension, benefit the Syrian rebels.

The President's attempts to get Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the limited use of force for this limited purpose have been met with considerable opposition. Some of the opposition has been based on totally valid reasons and some has not.

Valid reasons for opposing the resolution include the belief that it will not achieve its objective; general opposition to the use of force under any circumstances; overall war weariness; and the belief that chemical weapons do not deserve special treatment. This reasoning holds that if we were unwilling to act when 100,000 people were killed using bullets and bombs, the death of an additional thousand people through chemical weapons should not change that equation.

Invalid reasons include the position that anything this President proposes must be opposed because of who he is, or that since the resolution does not provide for full scale war against Syria it is insufficient and therefore limited strikes will not be supported.

But with this new development the level and nature of the opposition to a Syria resolution may now change. There will of course be some persons who will continue to oppose any resolution, including one that enables Assad to avoid military action by ceding control over his chemical weapons. But for others it may well make a difference. Those are the people who, notwithstanding their war weariness and their determination to avoid our getting directly involved in the Syrian conflict, believe that chemical weapons truly are different. They believe that it is critical that the United States and the international community do more than pay lip service to the international norm against their use.

In connection with this amended Congressional resolution, there is a likelihood that we will see an effort to pass resolution out of the United Nations Security Council that condemns the use of chemical weapons and establishes a framework for Assad's weapons to be turned over to international control. The United States may also try to see if it can convince the Russians to include a specific condemnation of Assad and the type of trigger that would authorize the use of military force in the event Bashir Assad does not comply. It will be interesting to see if the Russians continue to object to this last element. It is also unknown how the Chinese will respond.

What is arguably most important about this new development is that it will focus all this discussion on chemical weapons and enable the President to achieve his twin objectives of deterring the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and reinforcing the international norm against such weapons.

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